Bear Spray vs. Pepper Spray for Self-Defense – Which One Works Better?

When it comes to serious self-defense against threats, certain less lethal options don’t get enough consideration. Whether you’re facing down a couple of muggers or a raging bear, people instinctively and understandably tend to think of lethal force, specifically firearms.

SABRE Pepper Spray, with 100MPH Tape Securing the Trigger Mechanism
SABRE Pepper Spray, with 100MPH Tape Securing the Trigger Mechanism

But firearms aren’t the answer to every tactical self-defense problem. For one thing, they require a fairly high degree of skill and training to use effectively and safely.

Another point is that they aren’t legal everywhere and in every situation. Even if you are justified in using them the legal repercussions of the justified use of lethal force can be substantial.

Sometimes it’s enough to shut down a fight before it starts or just give yourself an opportunity to get away by soaking your attacker with a blinding, agonizing blast of pepper spray or bear spray.

Still, we need to know what the difference is and which one you should pick. This article will answer all of your questions…

FeatureBear SprayPepper Spray
CRC (Capsacin and Related Capsaicinoids)1% – 2%1% – 3%
Canister size8 ounces1 ounce
Range20 – 30 feet (6 – 9 meters)8 – 15 feet (2.5 – 4.5 meters)

What Is Bear Spray, Exactly?

Bear spray is exactly what you are probably thinking: It is a spray, typically an aerosol, that is designed to deter bears from coming too close or attacking people.

It does this by inflicting searing pain on the eyes, nose, and respiratory system of the bear.

Typically sold in large canisters designed to provide high volume, long range (for spray) and a wider area to ensure that a closing bear does indeed get dosed.

Most bears have proven extremely sensitive to bear spray, and it is highly recommended as a reliable form of defense against them.

What is Pepper Spray, Exactly?

Pepper spray is a self-defense spray designed to deter human attackers, and animals, by means of an irritating capsicum agent.

Just like bear spray, it causes horrendous, burning pain to mucous membranes, eyes, nasal passages, and the respiratory system, and also involuntary tearing, closing of the eyes and more.

Fired accurately and at the right time, pepper spray has an excellent track record of deterring a human attacker before a fight even starts.

This can allow police, who use it routinely, to more easily subdue uncooperative suspects or allow civilians time and opportunity to escape from a potentially even more dangerous situation.

Does Bear Spray Work? First Hand Bear Encounter W/ Bear Spray

What are the Effects of Bear Spray?

Bear spray is ultimately an inflammatory agent, sometimes referred to as a lachrymatory agent.

Chemicals of this type are designed to cause severe eye pain, skin irritation, temporary blindness and respiratory distress, specifically coughing, gagging and shortness of breath.

Used against a bear, or any other mammal, these effects are all but certain with an accurate, frontal application to the face and head of the animal.

Basically, how bear spray works is by causing a bear intense, bewildering pain and discomfort that is likely to get it to break off an attack or investigation.

Israeli Man Uses Pepper Spray To Ward Off Knife Attack

What are the Effects of Pepper Spray?

The effects of pepper spray are pretty much exactly the same as bear spray since the two are pretty much identical in a chemical formulation most of the time: Extreme pain, tearing, closing of the eyes, labored breathing, coughing, runny nose, gagging- all good stuff so long as you aren’t the one being sprayed!

What Ingredients Do These Sprays Use?

Both products go by their generic names almost as a matter of course, but specifically referring to a self-defense spray as pepper spray indicates a type of solution that is made with oleoresin capsicum, or OC.

There are other formulations of pepper spray intended for self-defense against humans, including CN and CS, which are tear gases, PAVA spray, CR gas, bromoacetone and others.

All are designed to have basically the same effect, but vary greatly in chemical composition.

But let’s swing back around to true pepper spray which is commonly used for self-defense against humans and also against bears and other dangerous mammals.

The effective ingredient, capsaicin (present in OC), is the exact same organic substance that makes hot peppers hot, and peppers are actually where the active ingredient for these sprays comes from.

Highly concentrated OC is a dissolved using an organic solvent, suspended in either water or oil and then placed into a pressurized container where it can be dispensed as an aerosol mist, a stream of liquid or less commonly as a foam or gel.

Depending on the manufacturer and the model of the spray, other ingredients might be present in the formula, including UV sensitive marking dies, visible dye or other inflammatory agent formulas such as CN or CS, though these are less common.

Generally, you’ll want to look on the product packaging for the concentration of the active ingredients, though none of the common methods for measuring strength are entirely accurate.

OC concentration and CRC (Capsaicin and Related Capsaicinoids), aka total capsaicinoids, is it generally a better bet than SHU, or Scoville heat units.

As a rule, higher is better, the most pepper sprays sold for self-defense against humans top out at about 3% CRC, while bear sprays by law in the United States must be between 1 and 2% CRC.

Are there Differences Between Bear Spray and Pepper Spray?

Practically speaking, and assuming you’re dealing with an OC formulation, the only difference between bear and pepper spray is it typically the strength of the spray, the size of the canister and the range that the unit possesses.

Typically, high grade civilian self-defense pepper spray will usually have between 2.5% and 3% CRC while bear sprays, at least one sold in the United States, legally must be between 1% and 2% CRC, significantly weaker all things being equal.

But, most bear spray dispensers carry dramatically more solution in a canister, you can spray farther, and often spray in a somewhat wider stream or cone.

A conveniently-sized can of pepper spray usually carries less than an ounce of solution and has a range of anywhere from 8 to 15 feet.

As for the effect on the target, man or beast, the results will be the same overall.

Is Bear Spray Stronger than Pepper Spray?

Typically no. As mentioned, bear sprays sold in the United States and possessing an OC formulation will have a total CRC of between 1 and 2% by law, no more and no less.

Although pepper sprays sold for self-defense against humans may be that strong or even weaker, most are stronger.

What are Legal Implications of Using Bear Spray?

The great thing about using bear spray or pepper spray for that matter and any self-defense situation is that it is considered less-lethal force, or force that is far less likely to result in death or great bodily injury to man or critter.

Generally, when you pepper spray a bear, the only thing that happens is the bear will run away and have a pretty bad day for the next 45 minutes to an hour until the spray wears off. After that, the bear is no worse for the wear.

That being said, you should never spray an animal that you absolutely don’t have to, though you can make a great case that any bear that is close enough to be sprayed by bear spray should be sprayed with bear spray if you are any place out in nature where a bear could also reach you.

But, inappropriate use of bear spray that is discovered by authorities could certainly result in charges against you, although this is highly unlikely.

How about the Legal Implications of Pepper Spray?

The legal implications of pepper spray are more significant than many people think.

Just because the spray has a reputation as being non-lethal, and because it has a reputation as causing no lasting or serious injuries typically, that it can be used more or less at the drop of a hat. This is not the case.

The use of pepper spray, even though it is considered a minimum amount of force as far as weapons are concerned and especially in a self-defense context, it is still considered force and you’ll be judged accordingly in the aftermath of any encounter where you deploy it.

Inappropriately using pepper spray or maliciously using it when there is no imminent and reasonable need of self-defense will result in charges, serious ones.

Some states even have special statutes covering the misuse of chemicals or chemical dischargers like pepper spray. Suffice it to say that you should only ever spray someone with pepper spray if you are in serious fear of injury at their hands.

You don’t necessarily have to be in fear of a great bodily injury or death, but you must be able to articulate a legitimate fear of injury before you spray.

Pot shop owner uses bear spray to drive away robbers

Is Bear Spray Dangerous to Use on Humans?

No. Genuine bear sprays are basically pepper spray in a larger format and it usually has a slightly weaker concentration.

This only applies to bear sprays that are legally sold inside the United States, as different countries might have different standards, or a complete lack of standards, concerning the formulation and strength of bear spray.

If all you have is bear spray to defend yourself with against an aggressive person, don’t hesitate to use it, and in some states you might even purchase bear spray simply because it is a legal and large canister of pepper spray.

That said, it is imperative that you thoroughly investigate all of the relevant local laws because one possible gotcha might be the misuse of any such defensive spray for a purpose that is inconsistent with its labeling.

Can You Use Pepper Spray in a Bear Encounter?

Absolutely. Pepper spray will prove to be just as effective, chemically, as bear spray, but it is the nature of the dispenser itself that might let you down.

Most pepper sprays that are sold for self-defense against human beings have a considerably shorter range and much, much smaller volume than a typical canister of bear spray.

By the time you can reach the bear with your spray, it might already be at “bad breath-distance” and you could only have a few seconds worth of spray to use against it! Not ideal!

What are the Pros and Cons of Bear and Pepper Sprays?

We’ve already discussed the how concerning how these sprays work, and what they can reliably be expected to do.

So what are the overall pros and cons of bear and pepper sprays as self-defense implements?

Definitely in the “pro” column is the fact that all are available, affordable and statistically extremely effective.

Bear sprays are recommended over and over and over again by authorities and professional guides for defense against bears in areas where they are common.

That’s because the stuff works, and is also much easier to deploy and hit with compared to a firearm. This likewise applies to self-defense against human beings.

Effectively using pepper spray against an assailant is simple and straightforward, made more so by the fact you can legally be walking across a dark parking lot or in any other risky area with pepper spray in your hand already.

Also, let us not forget that except in the most extreme circumstances pepper spray is not lethal, and is generally not considered to be lethal force.

Whether you’re dealing with a marauding bear or a malicious human, this will definitely make things easier on you in the aftermath.

But, the flaws are fairly considerable and you must train and practice to minimize them. Compared to any firearm, pepper spray lacks range, pinpoint accuracy and most importantly the decisive lethal force projection.

Ultimately, pepper spray is only a deterrent, something that will get your attacker to give up and either go the other direction or distract or disable them enough to give you an opportunity to escape.

In case you are dealing with a motivated attacker, be it man or beast, the pain induced by pepper spray might not be enough to stop you from being torn apart, beaten, shot or stabbed.

In such cases, the only thing that will do except for a miracle is lethal force, and pepper spray or bear spray just isn’t it.

How Long Will Bear and Pepper Spray Last?

Pepper spray and bear spray are both made from organic and inorganic compounds, depending on the variety, but the active ingredient, OC, is organic and loses potency over time.

This means that a several year old can of either is not going to be as effective as a brand new one.

Similarly, the dispensers themselves wear out over time, and because they are ultimately disposable there is no great way to test them for reliability.

For this reason, I recommend that you ideally replace your can of pepper spray or bear spray once a year for a new one, or at the very least no later than every 2 years.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it legal to use pepper spray against bears for self-defense?

Yes, broadly. Though some self-defense pepper sprays are stronger than bear spray, it is legal to defend yourself from a bear attack with it.

Is it legal to use bear spray against people for self-defense?

Maybe. Check your local laws and statutes. Even though bear spray and pepper spray are pretty much identical formulas, you might have capacity restrictions on pepper spray where you live.

Sometimes using a self-defense product “in a manner inconsistent with its labeling” can also be an issue.

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